Tea and music

I had an excellent comment from a reader of the blog regarding the similarities of Chado and music. It was brought more into focus for me this week when I had a fellow teacher from Seattle visit. The teacher’s partner is an accomplished musician and we had a long and interesting discussion comparing chado and music.

It started with the scroll, “ichigo ichie,” (one meeting in a lifetime) that was hanging in the tea room as I made tea for them. He said like chanoyu, every time you play a piece of music, it is different and that no two performances are exactly alike. He also commented that sometimes while playing everything comes together in a natural flow without conscious effort, but to get there takes years of practice and playing with other people.

I was wondering if the analogy held up between tea and music. Much of it does. The constant practice, the training, preparation, timing and working together with others, the striving to follow procedure, and allowance for creative expression within a rigid structure.

Before Sen Rikyu there was tea and before Bach there was music.
~Hisashi Yamada

When I think of art I often think of painting, sculpture, photography or something with a tangible result; something to hold onto or point to and say this is art. I don’t often think of the performing arts like dance, theater or music. I read an interview with some rock singer who said that he’d been performing a few of the same songs for 20 years and at every concert he gave, people always shouted out requests for the same songs. He said that nobody would think of asking Leonardo to paint the Mona Lisa over and over again for 20 years.

The art of tea is unlike the fine arts, somewhat like the performing arts, and yet different from them. There is no tangible result from the art of tea, and tea is not a performance with the artist doing and the audience watching or listening. The art of tea is participatory. All the senses are engaged and stimulated. Host and guests create the experience together, with harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. The host strives to serve the guests and the guests do their utmost to appreciate what the host has done.

Someone said to me that people fall in love with the idea of Rikyu’s tea, but when they begin tea training they are disappointed to have to follow the rules and do boring stuff like clean tatami, folding fukusa, purifying utensils, walking in and out of the tea room. This is where you start. They just want to make beautiful tea. It is like going to a concert to hear Yoyo Ma play cello, but when they want to learn the cello, they are disappointed to have to do boring things like learning bowing techniques, tuning your instrument and playing scales when they just want to play Bach’s sonata. But even Yoyo Ma had to begin somewhere

Musicians don’t play someone else’s part when they play together. You don’t see the trombone playing the oboe part, nor does the cello assist the conductor. In chanoyu it is the same. Guests don’t help the host clean up, nor does the host drink with the guests. Everyone has his own role to play to make the whole more harmonious. Musicians respect each other to play their part and each part is different and distinctive, but together the whole becomes more than the individual parts.

As with music, the chaji runs on time. Because the charcoal only burns so long, heating the water and making tea when the temperature is perfect depends on good timing. In order to get there, guest and host must work together. Sometimes things like conversation have to be timed so as not to interrupt the flow of the temae. When the violins come in, it must not be too late, nor too early so that the music flows.

Even though jazz seems like everyone is doing their own thing, in order to improvise, players need to pay attention, listen, and adjust according to what to other players are doing. In a chaji, guests don’t just sit back to be entertained, they must pay attention, listen and adjust according to what is going on. It takes an experienced guest to anticipate things and make the host look good.

In a music ensemble, there isn’t a hierarchy. First violin doesn’t mean that the part is more important than second violin. All the parts are equally important. Even though there are supporting players, they are essential to make the composition sound right. Supporting players in chaji are no less important than that of host and first guest.

Bands who have been together a long time become very tight and know what other members are thinking, or can compensate if they have an off night. Even though songs in the repertoire have been played night after night of performance, every time it is played is a different experience. Sometimes surprises can happen that make the experience more interesting and lead to new creative endeavors. And even though you have studied temae with your classmates for years, in a chaji, sometimes surprises happen that make the experience interesting and enjoyable as the host and guests adjust to the unexpected.

There may be other ways that tea and music are alike. Are you a musician? Can you add to the discussion? Email me or reply in the comments below.

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